PORTLAND — A federal judge on Tuesday denied a request to reinstate the occupancy permit for a strip club in Westbrook, ruling that its owner had not met the requirements for a temporary restraining order against the city.
Lawyers representing Larry Ferrante, owner of Dreamers Cabaret, argued before Judge D. Brock Hornby that Westbrook and its fire inspector, Charles Jarrett, violated Ferrante’s constitutional rights when they shut down the club.
Luke Lirot, a First Amendment attorney based in Florida, said the use of the building on Warren Avenue as an “indoor recreational facility” is permitted in the city’s industrial zone, where the club opened last month. He contended that Jarrett shut down the business right after learning that it was a strip club.
“Is it deceitful to engage in conduct that exercises your First Amendment rights? Our position is no,” Lirot told Hornby.
“A city official can’t arbitrarily revoke the right to engage in First Amendment speech and expression.”
City Solicitor Bill Dale argued that it’s a case of code violations, not First Amendment rights.
The fully-nude strip club opened Sept. 17 and was closed the next day, after Jarrett cited code violations related to fire alarms, sprinkler coverage and state construction permits.
Dale says that Jarrett and Rick Gouzie, the city’s code enforcement officer, identified code violations after learning that the club’s capacity could reach 300 people. He said the building’s septic system couldn’t support the operation of a club.
“There is nothing on the record to prove (Jarrett and Gouzie) acted by motivations of nude dancing,” Dale said during Tuesday’s hearing in U.S. District Court. “The plumbing issue is a major issue.”
In his ruling, Hornby said Ferrante hadn’t satisfied the criteria for which a temporary restraining order would be issued — and the club could reopen.
“The plaintiffs have not shown a likelihood of success on the merits,” he said. “On one hand, First Amendment issues are treated highly by the courts. On the other hand, so are public safety issues.”
Ferrante has obtained some permits to comply with the city’s building codes, but it was unclear Tuesday what he still needs to pass a city inspection and get his certificate of occupancy reinstated.
Tom Hallett, another attorney for Ferrante, expressed disappointment with the ruling on his appeal.
“The judge, I guess, perceived it was a close call in terms of the factual dispute as to whether (the club) was shut down because it was content-based or if it was for the purposes of ordinances,” he said. “We thought we presented a particularly strong case on that issue.”
The Westbrook City Council held a special meeting on Sept. 22 – five days after Dreamers Cabaret opened – to consider a proposal to regulate strip clubs in the city.
The proposed ordinance would ban fully nude dancing, and prohibit strip clubs from operating within 500 feet of schools, playgrounds, parks, churches and libraries. The proposal also would prohibit alcohol in strip clubs.
The Committee of the Whole, made up of all seven city councilors, will meet Monday night to make a recommendation on the proposed ordinance. If the committee approves it, the City Council will hold a public hearing at 7 p.m. Monday at Westbrook High School to vote on the issue.
Hallett has contended that Dreamers Cabaret will be exempt from any ordinance passed after the club’s opening.
Staff Writer Melanie Creamer can be contacted at 791-6361 or at: [email protected]